Charles Leclerc and Scuderia Ferrari conjured a shock front-row lockout after an unpredictable qualifying hour at the Mexico City Grand Prix.
Leclerc beat teammate Carlos Sainz by 0.067s despite a difficult build-up to qualifying that saw the team off the pace during practice and both flirting with elimination in Q2.
Both drivers needed only their first laps of the session to secure the front row. Track conditions appeared to peak just as the red cars took their first set of fresh softs, and neither was able to improve with their second runs.
It appeared to open the door to Max Verstappen, a close third, to pinch the position, and a purple middle sector appeared to signify the seeming inevitable, but the Dutchman fell short by 0.097s, confirming the unlikely Ferrari front row.
“To be honest, I did not expect to be on pole position today,” Leclerc said. “For some reason when we put everything together we went well. On new tires we found a lot.”
Sainz said the performance was “very strange” and that his P2 lap was the first one he put together all weekend, but he was optimistic having two cars on the front row could open the door to a strategic victory.
“We are not as strong in high fuel as we are on low fuel,” he said. “We’re going to see what we can do tomorrow to keep those tires alive, to keep that Red Bull behind.
“Having two cars in front is a good advantage, so we’re going to try out best.”
Verstappen blamed his loss of pole on pushing too hard in the low-grip conditions, but the Dutchman was unconcerned about the battle for victory.
“It’s a very long race,” he said. “Of course I would’ve liked to start first, but we’ll have a good slipstream into Turn 1.”
Verstappen, however, is facing a post-session investigation for blocking pit lane exit, a similar offense to that which earned him a reprimand in Singapore — though stewards said afterwards it should have earned a harsher punishment.
The driver with the most to gain from a potential penalty is Daniel Ricciardo, who was superb to qualify fourth for AlphaTauri. The Australian was just 0.216s short of battling for pole in his fourth Q3 session of the season and second since his comeback from a broken hand. He beat Red Bull Racing’s Sergio Perez, who mustered fifth for his home race ahead of Lewis Hamilton, Oscar Piastri, George Russell and Alfa Romeo teammates Valtteri Bottas and Zhou Guanyu.
Along with Verstappen, three other top-10 drivers are under stewards investigations on Saturday evening: George Russell is also being looked into for blocking the pit lane exit attempting to find a gap in traffic; Russell, Lando Norris and Zhou are accused of lapping too slowly on their out-laps; and Hamilton is alleged to have failed to slow under yellow flags.
Pierre Gasly will start 11th ahead of Nico Hulkenberg and Fernando Alonso, whose Aston Martin has looked out of shape all weekend.
Alex Albon was knocked out 14th after having a Q3-worthy time deleted shortly after the end of the segment for cutting Turn 2, promoting Zhou into the top 10.
Yuki Tsunoda qualified 15th but will be demoted to last on the grid with penalties for exceeding his power unit and gearbox penalties. Esteban Ocon qualified 16th ahead of Kevin Magnussen and Lance Stroll.
Norris, who had been expected to contend for the front row, found himself knocked out 19th and last of those who set a time. McLaren sent the Briton out for his first run on medium tires but aborted the run in anticipation of a stint on softs at the end of the session.
Norris was sent out with fuel and time to complete two laps as a precaution, but he spoiled his first time with a slide through the stadium section, leaving him in the knockout zone. His last-gasp lap was then undermined by Fernando Alonso spinning at Turn 3, bringing out yellow flags, forcing the McLaren driver to abandon his lap and accept 19th in the order.
Logan Sargeant qualified last without a time set, having had all his laps deleted for exceeding track limits and then getting caught in traffic at the end of Q1.